— Don’t cry, Mooncake. You’re bunching up those beautiful straight eyebrows of yours. Your eyes will swell up. What’s wrong? Say something — it’s okay, you can tell me. Don’t cry, Mooncake. Tell me, why were you absent from school for so long? We were worried about you.
— Something terrible. Promise not to tell anyone. Something terrible happened. That smell...
— I’ll keep your secret. Here, wipe your tears with this. Don’t make your uniform sleeves wet. It’s terrible to see you cry — you’ve always smiled. Now, now...
* * *
— I can still smell that smell, the fire and smoke, by the sea...they were burning him, he smelled so bad. Ceremonial cremation, everybody had to watch: my elder sister and I, aunt and uncle, my nanny from when I was a kid. Everybody there felt sorry for us. We’re orphans who inherited nothing but our father’s debts; the gangster loan sharks had done it to him in the first place because he couldn’t pay up. They bashed him in the head because he lost all the money he borrowed from them gambling and drinking and had nothing and wasn’t willing to pay them back. My uncle said that one wouldn’t have been able to pay that kind of interest anyways; either way my father was doomed from the beginning. But what about us? My sister was angry that this happened, that we had a nice mother who got flattened by a truck carrying stones and sand, who left us with a father who gambled and took out loans and eventually died on us too. I wanted to feel angry like her; it would have made me feel stronger, but I couldn’t. It was just sad, and eerie; I was vulnerable.
When the flames licked his body on the funeral pyre it smelled like burning devils in hell — my dad wasn’t a nice man you know — that’s why he burned so slow and smelled so bad. It was nauseating, the whole scene, the parody of a mid-autumn festival barbecue, family gathering and all. We were gathered around the bonfire that turned my dad into little white, black, brown, orange pieces, like coral sand mixed with cat litter — did you know that human ashes aren’t smooth? Or maybe it was just my dad. There were things inside him that didn’t burn right. The ashes were dusty cat litter, the cheap kind. When you dump it, dust flies.
All the time he burned my sister and I were dressed in coarse white burlap and kneeling while the hired monks rang charmed bells and chanted, imagining they could chant my father into a better place. It’s useless, stupid. He was a hopeless man, and will be a hopeless ghost. And there was all these paper and bamboo crafts in the shape of houses and cars and the piles and piles of paper money, all burning with him, because he’s supposed to spend it in the underworld and bribe ghost officials to treat him well.
Bundles of dead people money to help him cross the dark bridge of death and pass the frightful Black and White No Constants. I couldn’t stop thinking about ghosts and how my dad must have turned into the ugliest, meanest, spirit. He didn’t beat us really, but always threatened to. I was good at running away or hiding; my sister would grab a watermelon cleaver and threaten him right back with it. After that he would curse and get completely drunk, and when he was sober and hungover the next morning or the middle of the night he would weep and beg our forgiveness, saying it was all because his wife, our mother, left us, it was grief done it to him.
Everything at the cremation made me sick and I can still feel it all, the salt in the dirty sea wind mixed with thick fumes from the burning human hair and skin, the seagulls screaming like it was their dead, going crazy above us because of the smell of a dead barbarian barbecue; the shapeless, sour-smelling burlap bunched around my knees, all scraped from moving about in a kneeling position, my sister with no expression on her face but I knew she was angry, angry at me all of a sudden, because she always was, for no reason. I think it’s disgusting that the funeral people give us used burlap, used from another death, from other people’s grief and tears and sweat, it’s just horrible, revolting, the living put up with so much more than the dead...
* * *
Seven, the ghost number. For the seven times seven forty-nine nights after his death I was afraid to sleep at night, and I had ghost-pressing-down-on-bed dreams when I did fall asleep, against my will. Are they dreams, or are they real? My father’s heavy ghost, with weighty, black and bloody torturing tools, nails, spiked wheels and metal rods chained around his neck and body, sat on top of me so that I couldn’t move from my bed at night. I would struggle and struggle but he just sat on top of me, sometimes with his back to me, sometimes letting me see his profile, which was twisted and mud-green. Fear paralyzed me. Because he was an evil ghost now maybe he had no memory of the good times we had had together, and all he knew was to torment me because I was his daughter. Sometimes if I fought him, he scratched me horribly with these long talons he’d grown since his death. Sometimes he would choke me. I couldn’t scream and couldn’t move, and I was afraid to fall asleep because he would come sit on me until the morning if I did. This happened almost every night and lasted all day when I had a fever and had to stay in bed. I tried to tell my sister about it but she scowled and called me stupid and told me to shut up or she’ll send me to the monks in the temple to drink nasty ash tea brewed from the ashes of burned paper talismans. She also threatened to have me pasted over with yellow strips of ghost drawn symbols so I would stop having superstitious nightmares. I think she was angry that our father only haunted me, not her, but she’s so fierce and strong that she could fight his ghost and win — that’s why he only picked on me, since I’m smaller and weaker, and not as mean as my elder sister. It’s not fair. Everybody picks on me, my sister, and my dad, even after his death. I want somebody who can protect me, day and night, from people and ghosts and everything — is that too much to ask?
* * *
For weeks and weeks I slept badly and woke up feeling bruised, tired, and terrified from being abused my father’s evil, heavy and mute spirit. Then, finally, on the seventh night of the seventh week after his death, he really returned. He came back dark and horrible, no longer wearing the metal chains he had when he sat on me, but dressed in a white robe with red ghost drawn symbols on it. His body was charred in different places, and he brought with him the stench of his burning carcass. He went to every room of my aunt and uncle’s house, where we were staying during the funeral rites in Kaoshiung. He left behind the smell of smoke, burning flesh, wherever he had been. The unbearable stench lingered and made me sick.
He told my aunt and uncle to burn him more paper money, and to ask the police to investigate his murder by the gangsters, otherwise he would be dead without closing eyes, that he would wander the earth as a ghost with his eyes wide open, unable to sleep or rest until his spirit of retribution was at rest. In other words, the terrible man was unwilling to leave until he had his revenge. I don’t understand why he couldn’t let things go. He wasn’t thinking of my sister’s and my safety; he was thinking murderous thoughts of retribution. What was the point? And when he visited my sister and I he looked straight at us with his horrible green face, one eye larger than the other, the side of his head burnt and rotting. I clutched my sister, whom I had begged to let me sleep with her on the forty-ninth night because I was too afraid to be alone. I shook her and shook her and finally she woke up, and I pointed to our father’s ghost in front of us, snarling. There’s nothing there, she said, but she could feel me shivering with fright and she let me hide my face in her bosom, in her nightgown. Momentary warmth from a cold sister, against the cold air and burning smell that my father’s presence swept around the room.
* * *
When we were much younger, before our mother slipped under that truck, she brought me and my sister to a fortune teller to have the eight numbers of our birth analyzed in detail. The fortune teller said that my big sister had unusually weighty eight numbers, which meant she would not be susceptible to the influence of spirits and ghosts and could not see them. She had a stiff fate, he said. She was stubborn and strong and would have to find a man strong enough not to be jinxed by the stiffness in her character--she could easily become a widow. I, on the other hand, had wimpy eight numbers and needed a lot of protection. He was right, especially now. The fortune teller recommended the two of us sisters to stay together and compliment each other’s personalities and fortunes, for one another’s good. After that, my mom insisted that my sister accompany me wherever I went; she walked me to school, to the candy shop, to the park. I guess that’s why my sister is always annoyed with and angry at me — she thinks I’m a weak nuisance who is ruining all the fun and freedom in her life.
Now, of course, my sister works in our uncle’s supermarket by day and goes to night school by night so we aren’t together anymore — that’s how I started having so many Big Brothers. I know some of them will grow up to be gangsters, and some of them are already involved in such things, fighting and blackmailing people for money, but they care about me and make me feel safe. And they can stand up to my dad’s loan sharks for me, if necessary. I don’t feel safe without someone to protect me — it’s not what many of you think, that I like to play with boys and be bad, I really need them for a sense of security.
* * *
— And your father, is he gone now? Does he still bother you?
— No, I haven’t seen him since the forty-ninth night, but I leave all the lights on when I sleep now so I’m not too frightened. Do you believe me? Do you believe in ghosts?
— Yes. I’ve had guai yu chuan, ghost-pressing-down-on-bed experiences too. But it wasn’t anybody I knew who died, just various mean spirits with claws that I couldn’t see.
— I had those occasionally before my dad died.
— Of course, if it makes you feel any better, scientists claim that those dreams are just dreams, and there’s a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. They call guai ya chuan sleep paralysis, and it happens when your brain wakes up before your body does, and that’s why you can’t control or move your body yet — you’re not actually awake. And since you’re still kind of dreaming you might dream of ghosts.
— I guess that’s possible. But my dad was very real, and terrifying.
— I know. When I encounter such experiences, I really believe that it’s ghosts pressing down on me. I don’t want to believe in them, but I do. I even...don’t tell anyone...had sex with a ghost once.
— What? That’s...what do you mean had sex with a ghost, that’s impossible. I hope it wasn’t a gross ghost.
— Go ahead, laugh at me, Mooncake. It’s nice to see you so delighted, even at my expense.
— I’m sorry, it’s really of a terrible kind of funny — being with a ghost, my heavens!
— Well, at least you’re smiling now.
* * *
So once not that long ago I was at my grandparent’s new house in Taipei, napping in the pink room which belonged to the former owners’ little girl. When I was in bed I felt the presence of two ghosts coming over to me, floating above me. They were discussing me earnestly. Both were male, and seemingly benign. One was young and good looking and we were instantly attracted to each other. The other was much older, middle-aged in fact, and he also was interested in me. I mean interested, physically, if that’s even possible with ghosts. Anyhow, both of them expressed that they wanted to have sex with me. For some reason, I decided to be with the middle-aged ghost first, even though the younger spirit was more handsome and desirable, less hairy, and clean-looking. I thought I would sleep with the other ghost after I was with the first. But after the middle-aged ghost and I had a vague sort of intercourse, and the younger ghost came and stroked me, I told him that I culdn’t sleep with him now, because I has already slept with the older ghost — suddenly I felt that it wasn’t right to do so. I apologized and he said he understood, then both ghosts left.
— My heavens, that’s completely bizarre. Did you ever see any of them again?
— No. But it was kind of a romantic experience, because I decided to remain faithful to the old ghost and I think that meant something.
— Anyways, Mooncake, don’t worry too much about things. It’ll all work out, I’m sure. You have your friends at school, your Big Brothers after school, and your uncle, aunt, and evil sister at home. You’ll be perfectly fine.
— Perhaps. I guess I can look forward to the freedom of an orphan. I don’t have to worry about what my dad thinks anymore, since he’s gone. I don’t have to worry about him getting drunk or trying to attack us, or my sister going crazy with a cleaver and accidentally killing someone.
— You’re right — you’re absolutely free now. It’s nice not to have to try to please your parents. I don’t think it’s possible to ever satisfy Chinese parents, to make them happy with you, because they never will be, however hard you try. They can be mildly proud, but they’re never satisfied.
— Even if they drink or gamble themselves.